For prosperous families, the universe of K–12 school options is almost limitless. But the possibilities for poor and working-class families are far fewer, especially when it comes to private schools. Even for moderate-income families, paying tuition—while also paying taxes (including those to their school district), covering mortgage or rent, saving for college and retirement, and more—remains a heavy lift.

Helping more low- to mid-income Ohioans access private-school choice is why state lawmakers created the income-based EdChoice scholarship (often referred to as a voucher). With the backing of former Governor John Kasich, the program launched in fall 2013 starting with kindergarten eligibility and expanding one grade per year. In just six years, the program has grown to serve about 10,000 students. In recent years, parental demand has outstripped supply, leading to waitlists.

Governor Mike DeWine’s budget plan would continue the phase-in of income-based EdChoice by making sixth and seventh graders eligible over the next two years. The House retained that plan. But in one bold stroke, the Ohio Senate passed provisions in its version of the state budget that would make low-income students in all grades K–12 eligible for scholarships starting in 2020–21. To ensure the expansion is properly funded, the chamber added $50 million to the line-item appropriation dedicated to income-based EdChoice. Overall, the Senate changes could soon support 20,000 needy students, including thousands seeking to attend private high schools of their choice.

This is great news, but it doesn’t stop there.

The Senate proposed some further, albeit wonkier, refinements to Ohio’s scholarship programs, including its traditional EdChoice program, where eligibility hinges on the performance of district schools. All are geared toward improving access for families in need and include the following.

  • Year-round application for traditional and income-based EdChoice scholarships: Under current statute, ODE must accept applications during two narrow windows in the spring and possibly summer before the next school year. While likely easing administrative burdens, these limited application periods are unfriendly to families. Not only do parents need to figure out the state’s complex eligibility rules, but they also need to know this bureaucratic calendar to apply on time. To alleviate the stress on families, the Senate proposes year-round application for EdChoice—something akin to rolling college admissions. Though it won’t guarantee that every applicant receives a scholarship—funds for income-based EdChoice may run out if interest is high—it would ensure that all families have a chance to apply, even at non-traditional times. For instance, this change could help a family who, after an unsuccessful first semester of school, decides to place their child in a private school.
  • Better ensures that schools receive full scholarship amounts: Because the maximum scholarship amounts for EdChoice are low—just $4,650 for K–8 students—the max is likely to apply in the vast majority of cases. But in cases where tuition—which, by administrative rule, is the “sticker price” minus other sources of financial aid and discounts—is less than the maximum, the scholarship is worth that amount. As a result, the state avoids paying full amounts when deductions, borne of good-faith efforts to support families, reduce tuition to less than $4,650. The Senate would change this practice (likely applicable to financial aid only) and ensure that private schools don’t get shortchanged just because they extend other assistance to students.    
  • Automatically increases the traditional EdChoice scholarship cap: Back in 2011, the traditional EdChoice program reached its statutorily driven cap that limited the number of scholarships available. Responding to strong parent demand, Ohio legislators lifted the cap so that no one would be left out. Even though that expanded cap of 60,000 scholarships has not yet been reached, the Senate now proposes proactive steps to ensure that such an artificial barrier won’t prevent students from receiving scholarships. Specifically, it adds provisions that automatically lift the cap by 5 percent when the number of applications in the previous year exceeds 90 percent of the cap.  

Ohio’s EdChoice scholarships have given thousands of hard-working families the opportunity to choose private schools that fit their values and meet their needs. The Senate proposals would further expand and strengthen these programs, making the choices of low-income families more similar to those of their higher-income counterparts. If, over the next week, their legislative colleagues ratify these changes, all Ohio families will at last be empowered to choose schools they most prefer.

Policy Priority:

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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